Shana knelt before the Eternal Flame and wept.
How could she go on? She’d made it this far, but at too great a cost.
Maribelle… Isabelle… Annabelle…
How did this go so wrong? How did I lose all three of you? I was supposed to lead the way. I was supposed to be strong enough to defend you.
But in the end, I was useless. And I only made it this far because of all of you.
And now I’m supposed to return? All by myself?
Shana’s thoughts turned to Chelsea, Delilah, and the others outside of the Forge. They were facing a terrifying, unbelievable horde of shadow-Hollows. Were they still fighting? They must be, or Shana would have already failed. If any darkness touches the Dream Forge during the trial, it ends.
So somehow, miraculously, those outside were holding against impossible odds.
And if I fail… if I don’t bring the Eternal Flame back…
I’m letting all of you down. I’m failing all of you.
Shana shrunk down, curling in on herself so much that her forehead touched the cool grass. She reached a hand into her pocket, feeling the warm metal of her bookmark Talisman.
“Altair,” she said softly, sobbing. “Altair…”
Yet still she remained alone.
“I can’t… I can’t do this.” Shana crawled forward to lean against the smooth stone pedestal atop which the lantern with the Eternal Flame rested. “It’s over. I failed. I’m so sorry…”
Shias. Caleb. Fae.
Kathryn. Rae. Ben.
I’m so sorry, everyone.
If only there was someone here. If only Heart would show herself, would give some guidance. Shana still didn’t know how to use her Dreamer powers, how to tap into the magic that Heart possessed. If only Lady Kodoka had explained things properly in her journal. If only Shana had asked to wait before heading to the Forge, had entered the Dreamworld again and spoken with Heart before this test.
If only I’d done a million things differently. If only I hadn’t failed so terribly.
If only I wasn’t alone.
Shana wanted to scream, to bawl like a baby, but all she could manage was quiet, mournful weeping. Tears streamed down her face in near silence, punctuated occasionally by brief, gasping sobs.
She cried and cried until she was all out of tears, her eyes stinging, her heart aching.
And still she was alone. Still she had no idea what to do.
“Can I just stay here? It’s so peaceful.” Shana looked up, through bleary, tear-exhausted eyes at the grove. Green grass swayed in a mild breeze. The sun shone warmly from a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds.
It was quiet, comfortable, safe.
Why must Shana reach this place, only to then have to brave the dangers and terrors of the Nightmares again? This was a terribly, painfully unfair test. She’d reached the Flame, at horrible cost and through torturous trial. What more could the Forge ask of her?
“This trial will not be an easy one. The less Princesses there are to aid the Dreamer, the more perilous the journey will become.”
So Lady Kodoka had said. And yet to place the blame on Maribelle, Isabelle, and Annabelle was something Shana couldn’t do.
They had failed because of her. The Princesses had fallen, been overwhelmed by the Nightmares, because of her.
Shana, the Dreamer, the great hope of the Library of Solitude, had failed her companions. She’d failed her valiant defenders. She’d failed the Library.
She’d failed The Light.
Out in the Library, Shana knew that Delilah would keep fighting no matter what. Shana was three years older than her younger sister, and yet she knew, after just a short time with her in the Library, that Delilah was the brave one. Delilah was the bold one. Delilah would never give up.
And Delilah would believe in Shana no matter what.
Why would you place your faith in me? Why would you trust me to succeed at such a gigantic task? I can’t… I can’t do this. The Dreamer should have been you, or Shias, or Caleb, not me.
I’m nothing on my own. I’m the support, the one who backs up the brave fighters.
Without the brave fighters by my side… what can I do? How can I possibly be the hero here? How can I possibly face all those terrors alone?
If I had Altair… but I don’t even have him. He’s always been able to make me brave, always been able to keep me going.
But he can’t even reach me in this place. We’ve been separated for the first time, and I…
A chime sounded, and Shana looked around. It was a beautiful sound, but… what was it? It had sounded almost like the bells that tolled in the Dreamworld when it was time for Shana to leave, but brighter, clearer.
Was Shana on a time limit in this grove?
“Please don’t send me away!” Shana cried out, pushing herself to her feet. “I can’t go back in there! I’m not strong enough!”
“You are the only one who can do this.”
The voice came and went in an instant. Still and small, it reminded Shana of the strange voice that had spoken to her just as she’d entered the Dream Forge. It had said, “Do not be afraid.”
And yet here was Shana, totally terrified. And that same voice that told her not to fear now told her she was the only one who could do this.
No one else could. Despite their strength, Shana’s siblings weren’t the Dreamer.
“But… why me?” Shana sank back against the pedestal. “Why did it have to be me?”
The voice did not reply.
The chime sounded again, and Shana stood, desperately wanting to cry but unable to. She placed her hands on the pedestal, staring into the blue fire of the Eternal Flame within the silver lantern.
It was the same blue color as Altair.
It wasn’t grand and powerful, as Shana had hoped and expected, but really quite small. The tiny flamed flickered steadily, gently.
And yet… its size did nothing to diminish it. Looking into the fire, Shana got the sense that the Eternal Flame didn’t need to be large.
It just needed to keep burning.
That was all it needed to be: a tiny light, forever shining, no matter what.
It doesn’t have to be big and strong. It just has to keep on going.
Shana wiped her face, and then reached out a hand, gripping the silver handle atop the lantern. It was cool to the touch – a refreshing coolness that seemed to absorb into Shana, granting her a tiny bit of strength.
Just keep on going.
Shana turned away from the pedestal, back towards the archway that would lead her into the Nightmares once again. But before she took her first step, she stopped in shock.
There, standing at the archway, was Altair.
Shana was speechless for several moments. Could it really be him?
When Altair barked and wagged his tail, Shana knew it was him. Eyes she’d thought were empty of tears were suddenly wet once more, and Shana raced forward towards her little dog.
Before she reached him, Altair turned, still wagging his tail. With another energetic bark, he dashed off into the Nightmares.
Shana stopped just short of the archway, staring out into a dark forest. Altair vanished as the path curved.
Just keep going.
Can I do this much? I’m really the only one who can, aren’t I?
Shana took a deep breath, let it out. One foot in front of the other, she started walking.
“Altair?” she asked, wondering why she couldn’t feel his presence. Was he even real? What could she trust in anymore? Holding up the lantern, Shana found herself calming.
She could trust in the Eternal Flame. It would never stop burning.
And I can never stop going. Not for anything.
Darkness closing in around her, Shana found the blue path that would lead her back to the tower, and walked on.
A flash of blue light drew Shana’s eye, and the occasional glimpse of Altair’s little tail pulled her onward.
I just have to keep going.
The silver lantern in her hand gave off its own light, forming a protective bubble around Shana. The darker the forest became, the brighter the blue light shone.
Shana felt safe. She felt hopeful.
But she also felt anxious, because she knew this wasn’t truly safety.
“The Eternal Flame is not a weapon, nor is it a shield. Carrying it back through the World of Nightmares will be as perilous as the trek to reach the Flame.”
Those words in Lady Kodoka’s journal rang clear in Shana’s mind.
And yet she couldn’t help but feel hopeful. Something had changed within her, like a small flame of her own, fighting back against the darkness that had threatened to overtake her.
This wasn’t something she wanted to do. This wasn’t something she felt capable of doing.
But she was the only one who could. Necessity took hold within her, and the thought of her friends new and old, of her family, of those fighting for her, of those waiting for her, of all who loved and believed in her, gave her strength.
And in a tiny place in her heart, the still, small voice that told her not to be afraid gave her strength.
Suddenly, without warning, the ground beneath Shana’s feet collapsed.
Her first thought was for the Flame, and she held the handle tightly, hugging the silver lantern close to her. Its warmth buoyed her in her fall, and though her landing onto rocky ground was harsh and sudden, she quickly sprang to her feet.
From a dark forest to a dark valley. Cliffs shot up on either side of her like skyscrapers, clawing at the blood -red clouds above. Rushing water could be heard, but not seen, though the path Shana stood on had a sheer drop to her left, likely down to the river. Since she was carrying a lantern, Shana didn’t much feel like going for a swim, so she walked along the path, the blue light clear in front of her.
As if sensing that this new landscape didn’t worry Shana in the slightest, the rocks collapsed beneath Shana, and she fell once more.
This time Shana crashed through rough branches and sharp leaves, bouncing this way and that, desperately holding tight to the Eternal Flame.
And then she landed, rolling down a shallow hill, stumbling to her feet and coming to rest against a tree. Another dark forest stretched out before her, and still the blue path continued, not wavering at all.
I hurt. A lot. But somehow… I can keep going.
A flicker, a movement in the distance drew Shana on, following after the mysterious creature that looked so much like Altair. Was it Altair? That seemed impossible – Shana couldn’t sense his presence, couldn’t feel his warmth in her heart, and she had no control over the creature ahead of her.
Was the little dog even real? Was she being spurred on by an illusion, a lie to give her hope?
Whether Altair appeared before her due to good forces or due to Nightmares, Shana wasn’t worried. Altair led her along the blue path, and the blue path was what she needed to follow.
Just keep going. That’s all I need to do.
The forest grew thick around her, and Shana found herself squeezing between blackened trunks, scraping through and past clawing branches and biting leaves. She cut her cheek, and her shoulder, and her hand on the shadowy growth around her. The lantern jostled in her grip, but when it shifted, its handle rang out with a small, clear chime. The sound, like the Eternal Flame’s light, gave Shana strength.
All is not dark. All is not frightful.
A sudden noise made Shana stop, quieting her breath the best she could as she listened.
She wasn’t alone. There was something else, and she could hear it, faint now, for it had stopped to conceal itself as well.
But it could not quiet its breathing like Shana. Slow, rough breaths, as if coming from the snout of a monstrous wolf, came steadily from Shana’s right.
There was a monster in these woods, and it hunted Shana.
Just stay calm. Stay hopeful. Remember the desert from before, how you were able to change the way things were, to erase your sunburns, to quench your thirst, to turn the sand into solid ground. This is the World of Nightmares, but you’re the Dreamer. You have powers in this world, and you can change things.
Whatever monster is out there, it can’t harm me.
Knowing was half the battle, and Shana’s knowledge of what she’d accomplished before, of what kinds of things she could do in theory, only got her halfway to hope. Wandering alone in these shifting lands was one thing.
Being pursued by an unseen monster was another thing entirely.
Altair? Can you come back?
Why are you always just out of reach?
Do I have to face or escape this monster alone?
The breathing intensified, and Shana heard a slow, rustling step behind her and to her right.
He’s on the move again. I have to do something. Run? Hide? Hope for my Dreamer powers to wake up and make me strong?
Shana shut her eyes, focusing with all her heart.
There are no monsters here. There are no monsters here. There are no monsters here…
A branch snapped in the monster’s slow wake, and his breathing grew heavier.
There were most definitely monsters here.
“Dangers, even in the shifting, inconsistent World of Nightmares, are very real. But fear is your choice. Do not be afraid, and you will prevail.”
So Lady Kodoka’s journal had said. It didn’t entirely make sense to Shana after what she’d been through. She’d been able to dispel the dangers of Nightmares, if only just once, by trusting that they weren’t real.
So how were they real? What was this nonsensical place, and how did it work, and most importantly, what should Shana do about the monster that was creeping up on her?
Another step, a sudden burst of breath. The beast was surely closer now – Shana guessed no more than ten yards away, but how could she be sure in this place?
You just have to keep going. If the monster won’t vanish, there’s a solution somehow. This is a test, a trial. It’s meant to be overcome, which means no matter what I come up against, I can prevail.
I just wish I knew how.
Shana took a slow, steady breath, as quietly as she could. The monster took another step, and then another, and Shana suppressed a scream as she felt the briefest brush of hot air against her arm.
It’s now or never.
One more slow, steady breath, and Shana opened her eyes, taking in the glow of the Eternal Flame. And beyond that, through the dense, dark forest, she saw a small motion of blue light.
Shana took off running. The second she took her first step, springing forward into as much of a run as she could manage in the cramped foliage, the monster behind her barked, a single, thunderous snap of sound that momentarily deafened her. She shrieked in panic as she ran even faster.
Powerful, reckless steps tore apart the forest behind her, snapping branches and even thick tree trunks with explosive sound. Shana’s pursuer was massive, powerful, and relentless, and Shana ran desperately, her heart pounding in her chest, panic and fear gripping her more with each step.
The blue path at her feet flickered, and Shana shouted out in dismay and anger. She held the lantern before her, letting its blue light take hold of her and pull her into a swell of courage.
But the monster was too close, and Shana was too slow. The path reappeared for a moment, but then vanished. Pain exploded in Shana’s back, and she was sent flying, screaming as she crashed through branches and undergrowth, coming to a painful stop against a thick trunk. The monster that pursued her had raked its claws down Shana’s back, and she could barely stand from the pain. Tears stung her eyes, and it was all she could do just to keep hold of the Eternal Flame.
Vicious snarling made Shana lift her head, to finally lay eyes on the beast. And yet she couldn’t, for it was too dark, and the beast’s form constantly shifted and warped. It had a face like a wolf, as big as Shana’s entire body, with glaring black eyes and a drooling maw of razor sharp teeth. She saw its claws, for a moment, but its legs and the rest of its body were like mist and shadow, morphing and changing every moment.
I’m gonna die I’m gonna die I’m gonna die I’m gonna –
The monster raised a clawed foot, snarling angrily at Shana.
In that moment, crippled by pain, waiting for death, Shana heard, to her left, the clear, defiant bark of Altair.
Though her body was bleeding and wracked with pain, her heart swelled. Somehow, as the monster before her brought down its gigantic paw in a sweeping killing stroke, Shana avoided it. She was on her feet, running through the woods, crying against the pain as the wounds on her back stung and throbbed, as branches and leaves tore at her face and arms.
But Altair was out there. He had called to her. Shana knew that bark, that very distinct tone.
It said, without words, “I will not surrender!”
Altair had always been braver than Shana. He’d shown his courage time and again since she’d embarked on this wild adventure, since she’d sought out the missing children and met Annabelle in the grove.
Even if Altair wasn’t really here with her, in a way, he was always with her.
Though still, there was no path. Shana was too frightened, too hurt, too broken to be open to the path. She simply ran, desperate and hopeful, as a shadowy monster raced after her, hunting her through the dense, deadly forest.
Another bark from Altair, and Shana adjusted her trajectory, turning slightly left. She wasn’t running very well, stumbling constantly. All of her bumps and bruises from falls before this forest, and all of her scrapes and cuts and especially the deep gashes on her back, built up and took their toll on her.
She hurt. She was filled with pain like she’d never known. How she kept putting one foot in front of the other, again and again, she didn’t know.
But she kept going. Just like the Eternal Flame she sometimes barely held onto, she kept on going. And she tried, like the little blue flame, to be a light against the darkness.
As she stumbled, as she cried, as she called out in fear and pain, Shana’s mind returned to the poem that Heart had shared with her, the poem that had led her to Lady Kodoka’s journal and the secrets to restoring the Library of Solitude. One line, above all the rest, had stuck out to Shana then, and it suddenly called to her now:
There is no shame in being weak.
Shana was tremendously weak. She didn’t wield the kinds of powers Lady Kodoka had said the Dreamer would, and pain and fear – weakness – had brought Shana to this low point.
She was alone because of her own weakness. She was lost and confused and hunted because of her own weakness.
And yet Heart had said there was no shame in her weakness. How could that be? How, when Shana’s weakness seemed to constantly undo all her hopes and efforts?
I’m weak. I think I’ll always be weak. I rely so much on others. I’m not a fighter, just someone who supports other fighters the best I can. I need friends, I need family, I need others around me to keep me going.
I can’t get by on my own. The only reason I can still keep going now, though I’m all alone, is because I’m not – there are so many people I count on, so many people I need to return to.
I’m not strong. But… maybe that’s okay.
I need people desperately. But… maybe that’s okay.
And right now, a lot of people need me. I just need to keep going. I don’t have to be strong. Strength didn’t get me to the Eternal Flame. I don’t think strength is going to get me back to the tower.
So what is?
Shana heard Altair’s bark, so close ahead of her now, and she raced ahead even faster.
Unfortunately, her hunter was faster still. He’d finally caught up to her, and with a snarl of rage, Shana could hear his claw sweep from the right, shattering tree trunks in its wake.
She didn’t know why. Instinct? Some subconscious Dreamer-thing that she didn’t understand? For whatever reason, she knew to jump, leaping forward with a cry of hope and rage and pain and all the emotions burning within her.
The hunter’s attack missed her. And Shana crashed through branches and leaves into sudden open air.
She was falling, as she had so many times before. This drop was short, though, and she landed feet-first on uneven ground, so her legs buckled and she tumbled, rolling painfully down a hill, made even more painful by how she desperately hugged the Eternal Flame to her chest, leaving her elbows exposed to the rocks and debris that she slid and bounced across.
Finally, she came to a stop, back-first against a tree with enough force that she screamed in pain. Eyes swimming with tears, heart nearly bursting with fear and frustration, Shana still knew she couldn’t stop here. And as she looked up, hope sparked within her.
For before her was a silver door rimmed with blue light. The first landmark, and the first sign that Shana was making progress.
A throaty howl from her monstrous hunter inspired Shana to scramble to her feet, flinging open the door and leaping through.
Luckily, it didn’t lead to an evil library. Instead, Shana found herself in a quiet, serene hallway. The marble floors echoed with each footstep, and golden light streamed down from skylights above.
It was beautiful and calming. Which made Shana even more on edge.
It also made her struggle to keep going. Without the imminent threat of a hunter seeking to kill her, Shana’s adrenaline faded, and her pain swelled. She staggered against the wall, her hand resting on a cool stone windowsill. Her hand that held the lantern was bleeding from numerous small cuts, and her sleeves on both arms were torn nearly to shreds. Shana saw more blood on her body than she’d ever seen anywhere.
And she knew it was worse. Her back didn’t just throb and sting, but Shana now noticed a sticky wetness that caused new pain to lance through her with every movement.
She was falling apart. This journey couldn’t go on much longer.
Her intention was to march down the hall seeking an exit, but she stopped at the window she rested near. Movement through it caught her eye, and as she looked, her eyes grew wide with horror.
She was looking onto an image from her memories: Isabelle’s last moments within the World of Nightmares.
Shana watched again as Isabelle, seeing a wicked librarian lunge for Shana with deadly intent, leapt in the path. Little Isabelle, so young, so innocent, giving herself up for Shana.
When the librarian’s claws and weapons reached Isabelle, the beastly lady’s entire form changed, morphing into a true nightmarish beast that Shana would never be able to speak of, and hoped one day she’d be able to forget entirely. Lady Kodoka had warned of the dangers within the World of Nightmares “overwhelming” the girls, and that was the perfect word to describe what happened to Isabelle.
And there was nothing Shana, Maribelle, and Annabelle could do.
They just had to keep running.
Shana turned away as the scene repeated itself, tears seemingly endless within her as they streamed down her face. She walked on, and the next window showed another grisly, horrific sight. This time it was Maribelle, fighting without her sword or magic against monsters that could not be fought, buying every possible second for Shana and Annabelle to escape.
Somehow, even in her final moments, Maribelle never looked afraid. And as she was overwhelmed, her last act was to look away, fixing her gaze on the fleeing Shana.
She put all of her trust in me. And I…
Have come this far. Don’t be torn apart now by the fear and pain of what’s happened. Succeed, and Isabelle and Maribelle will be fine.
The next window showed what Shana had not seen before. It was the town of Quiet, the horrifying nightmare world from Shana’s childhood. This time, she saw the truth of what happened to Annabelle.
Shana had, truly, abandoned her one remaining friend. Consumed by Nightmare-fueled doubts, Shana had doubted even the presence of little Annabelle and, as she suddenly ran from the footsteps of the Walkers…
She let go of Annabelle.
Annabelle ran after Shana, for a moment. But then, seeing the Walkers coming on, their hideous forms marching, sliding, stumbling…
Annabelle turned back. She didn’t run after Shana. Instead she called out for Shana to keep running and, though she was small and had no weapon or magic to defend herself with, charged straight at the monsters that stalked Shana.
Shana knelt at that window, resting her forehead against the cool marble, letting tears fall down her face.
All three of them were completely unafraid. All three of them stepped up to impossible odds for my sake.
I can’t get by on my own. I need others. And you three proved that. I’m so sorry for failing you.
And I’m so thankful that you helped me get this far. I won’t let you down.
As if the Nightmares around her sensed that their attempt to break her had instead filled her with gratitude, things changed once again. As had happened so many times before, the floor collapsed beneath Shana’s feet, and she fell through empty space.
Wind, hot and rough, lashed against her back. Shana gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to scream as she plummeted towards whatever the Nightmares had in store for her.
She landed on her back, so hard that the shock left her silent and stunned, unable to cry out. For a long time she lay there, staring up at a dark sky swirling with stars, while tears streamed down her cheeks.
How much longer could she keep going? She wasn’t even sure she could stand. This was too much, and even weakly holding up the lantern, staring into the hopeful, endless flickering of the Eternal Flame, didn’t help Shana to keep going.
Were any of her friends hurt like this? Out there fighting, did they face terrors worse than the beast that had injured Shana so?
How can I lay here while they continue to fight for me? And yet…
How can I stand? I don’t know if I have the strength. And… I hurt. So much. I can’t stop crying. I don’t want this anymore. I don’t want to keep doing this. I just want to be done.
Shana opened her mouth, sobbed, and then, barely able to muster a whisper, said, “Altair.”
Nothing. There was no sound in the blackness, no light beyond the faint stars above and the small Flame that Shana carried.
“Altair?” Shana asked, fighting to raise her voice just the littlest bit louder. “Altair… please. Please help. I can’t… I can’t go on alone.”
Silence stretched on, and the whirling stars overhead faded as clouds filled the sky. Dark and heavy, a sudden wetness alerted Shana to something other than blood.
It was raining.
It came down light and sparing at first, but quickly picked up, and soon Shana was being soaked by constant, steady drops of rain. They beat against her, pattered against the ground, brought sound into the silence. The hard ground Shana lay on was soaked through, turning to mud, and Shana sunk an inch.
I can’t stay here.
Shana lifted one arm, one side washed clean by rain, the other dark and heavy with mud. She lifted her other arm, with the same result. Holding up the lantern, she was relieved to see that it was completely enclosed. No rain water would seep in. The Eternal Flame was in no danger of being extinguished.
Dreading her next movement, it took Shana a long time to finally build up the courage to roll onto her side. She clamped her teeth over a scream as the wounds in her back pulled free from the muck and grime she lay in. One slow movement, then another. Shana got her knees under her, then one foot planted in the thick, soaking substance. She went to stand…
And slipped. Her foot flew out from under her, and Shana splashed face-first into the mud. Groaning and leaning up onto her elbows, she wiped her face to no avail, finally turning so she could tilt her head up into the rain, letting the waters wash her eyes clear.
Sight returned to her, and she found she was too weak to walk, even if she could stand.
She could crawl.
One hand in front of the other. One desperate push, one foot forward, slide, next hand, next foot, slide. Inch by inch, Shana pushed forward, grimacing at the muck that covered her entire body, gritting her teeth against the strange mix of pain and refreshment the rain waters brought to her tattered back. She slid the lantern forward with her, one side steadily getting heavier with mud, the other side remaining clear and glowing bright thanks to the rain.
The blue path was still nowhere to be seen. But somehow Shana had found the door without the path to guide her to it.
Just keep on going. Just keep on going.
Whenever Shana had the strength to look up and ahead of her, all she saw was an endless sea of mud and much to crawl through. Looking around her and behind her, she saw the same. There was no path.
There was only the endless crawl onward.
A sudden glimpse of blue light, far ahead, pulled Shana forward. Struggling against the weight of the mud, the rain that dripped into her eyes and threatened to blind her again and again, her wounds and pain that made her weak and numb, she desperately clawed and scraped towards the light.
And then, as Shana thought her strength was finally spent, her forward hand reached out and landed on cool metal rather than sticky muck. Shana grasped the metal, pulled herself forward, and looked up.
The lamp post.
The second landmark.
I’m almost… almost there.
Delirious as she was with pain, soaked through as she was so that her teeth chattered and her muscles ached with cold, Shana’s thoughts came slow and unsteady.
When Shana crawled forward just a little more, past the lamp post, her hand slipped into open air. The rest of her body was quick to follow, and she was falling, the rain and mud chasing after her over a sheer drop into nothingness.
And yet… this time the fall was different. Shana didn’t plummet towards the ground at breakneck speed, but instead started to drift lazily on the air, like a leaf or a feather. The rain water stopped pouring from above, but she saw thousands of droplets stalled in the air, drifting this way and that along with her.
It was the most dreamlike her time within the Dream Forge had been to her. Her heart and head felt fuzzy and light, and colors began to swim before her…
And the world changed.
Somehow, Shana knew she was seeing a vision, that she was physically still floating in the strange space, but her sight was being carried, transported to somewhere and something else.
She looked out from a black stone platform to a massive black fortress that jutted upward with millions of spiked, spear-like spires. The wind whipped across the stone, howling in a haunted fashion.
And then, on the wind, came the sound of wings. They beat the air, strong and powerful, and soon Shana saw who they belonged to, as a form rose up to meet Shana’s vision at the stone platform.
It was an owl. It looked rather like Chelsea’s, with a round face like a barn owl, but rather than the pure white of Chelsea’s, this bird was jet black.
And yet it glowed like a Summon.
It was huge, easily several times larger than Chelsea’s, and it had a strange mark on its chest: a crescent moon, glowing silver.
The owl’s eyes seemed to stare at Shana, and then a female voice spoke into Shana’s mind.
“You have done well, Dreamer. And… I am sorry.”
The voice was mournful, occasionally halting, as if dealing with a great pain.
“I need you to… find me. And to… find the ones who can save me. This will not be your last… time in Nightmares. Listen for the word. The one word, the one plague that has infested me and my land… and so many others.”
The next word rang loud and clear, and pierced deep to Shana’s heart.
The owl and the black fortress swirled and vanished, leaving Shana…
Back in the mud. Alone, weak, cold, filthy.
But before her was a sight that buoyed her heart and her hopes. Before her was a silver archway, gleaming with blue light.
And standing in that archway, wagging his tail, was Altair.
“Altair,” Shana said in a hoarse whisper, her free hand grasping for her loyal little dog. He stepped toward her, and as he headbutted her hand, suddenly Shana’s heart came to life.
She could feel him. He was real, and he was hers.
Shana pushed herself up to a kneeling position. The lantern in her hand glowed faintly, much of its exterior coated in dirt and grime. No rains fell now, so Shana was caked with mud, heavy and exhausted.
But she wasn’t alone anymore. She was at the end of her trial.
Altair barked, spinning in a circle and wagging his tail. Shana smiled, sobbing and laughing at once, tears falling to the ground.
“Thank you,” she said softly, holding Altair tight as he pushed against her, pawing and licking at the mud all over her, doing his best to clean her up. “Thank you so much.” She looked up, past Altair, through the arch.
It was the top of the tower. The other Dream Forge was there, waiting for the Eternal Flame so that it could restart.
With a push, and with a little headbutt from Altair, Shana stood. She wavered for a moment, but she did not slip, did not fall.
She walked forward, exhausted, injured, cold.
And yet she wore a smile on her face. At the Forge, Shana raised the lantern. Its door flew open on their own, and the blue flame within it divided, shooting forth half of itself. This half arced into the air and then dove into the Forge, bursting to life. The lantern in Shana’s hands vanished as the Dream Forge awoke, spinning and whirring, blue flames pouring up and out from it, turning from blue to pure white. Altair leapt into Shana’s hands and she held him, and as the white light washed over the pair, they left dreams and nightmares behind.
In the white light, Shana found herself once more in the place where it was too bright for the darkness, too silent for sound. In the bright silence came a still, small voice.